Saturday, June 30, 2012

debby's been here

Tropical storm Debby has been dumping tons and tons of rain - at least we haven't had to worry about drought this summer - as well as hurricane-force winds. We were able to get out the other day for a brief walk on the beach, which suddenly had dunes (usually it's very flat). Unfortunately the storm has been uncovering a lot of the turtle eggs. Hopefully they will survive the changeable weather.

Dunes as high as an eight year-old's eye
Someone managed to do this cool Sphinx sand sculpture between rainstorms
An exposed turtle nest
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Friday, June 29, 2012

classic film favorite — it should happen to you

Long before Andy Warhol said his famous quote, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes" in 1968, Judy Holliday tested out the concept in a little gem of a movie, It Should Happen to You.

The 1954 film, directed by George Cukor, stars Judy as Gladys Glover, a young woman who has been working as a model in New York City, but is pretty much fed up with her life there, which she feels is going nowhere. On a stroll through Central Park one afternoon she meets a cute filmmaker, Pete Sheppard, played by Jack Lemmon in his first film role. Holliday and Lemmon are dynamite together. Pete is immediately smitten with Gladys and manages to get her address by asking her if he can send her his documentary film when it is finished (he has shot some film of her feeding pigeons in the park).
Gladys, "Really? I'd give my right arm to see myself in the movies."
Pete, "You don't need to give me your right arm, just give me your right address."
How can she not fall immediately for this guy (or he for her)?
Gladys gets a look at her billboard in Columbus Circle while going for a ride in young Adams's convertible
They part, and Gladys, still dejected about losing her job as a girdle model (her hip size is 3/4" too big!), suddenly catches sight of a gigantic, blank billboard at Columbus Circle. She is suddenly overcome with a "great" idea — she pictures her name in lights and decides to contact the company that is advertising "this space for rent." She gets the brush-off at the advertising firm until she pulls out her nest egg of $1000 cash — and then she is able to rent the billboard for $210 per month, for a minimum of three months. She pays the fee, and we watch her directing painters to make her name as big as possible on the billboard.

Soon it seems the whole city and the Adams Soap Company, who usually rent the advertising space, are wondering who exactly is Gladys Glover? Peter Lawford, in hs usual second-banana role as the rich soap company scion Evan Adams III, adds some romantic complications when he becomes interested in finding out exactly who Gladys Glover is for himself. After wrangling with the soap company over her prime advertising space and location, Gladys manages to trade in her big sign for six small ones and her celebrity grows. Let's make a deal!

Meanwhile the adorable Pete has moved next door to Gladys, but she only seems to have eyes for her own fame. She gets a thrill when she is recognized at Macy's and is soon appearing on television shows —but she is just a familiar name, but without any discernible talent. Sound familiar? Instead of today's reality stars, however, Gladys becomes a figure of fun. Her quest for fame is shown to be shallow and ultimately unrewarding.
Gladys, "Listen, Peter, I'm over twenty-one."
Pete, "From the neck down, yeah."

Gladys could easily become an obnoxious, unlikable character, but played by Judy Holliday and loved by Jack Lemmon, it's impossible not to root for her and to like her. Pete finds possibly the cutest way ever to tell the obtuse Gladys that he loves her, by leaving his 16mm film called "Goodbye, Gladys" for her to watch on a projector in her apartment.

It Should Happen to You is a classic romantic comedy with some extremely appealing leads and some great footage of New York City in the 1950s — it was filmed on location. It is also impossible not to watch it without thinking how people like Gladys have shaped our current culture of celebrity. The last scene in the movie is not afraid to hint at how addictive fame can really be.
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Thursday, June 28, 2012

more edward gorey — in book form

Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey is the catalogue accompanying the show currently on display at the Norton Museum of Art is the perfect companion piece to the detailed and whimsical world of Gorey. According to the essay by curator and critic Karen Wilkin, Gorey thought of himself as a writer first. Or, he stated on occasion, a person. But artist, no matter the evidence on display at the Norton and in this catalogue, of his terrific talents, was never the first word he used to describe himself.

Edward Gorey, Untitled
Untitled, no date. there's a lot going on in this picture ...
The fabulous drawings, full of intricate cross-hatching certainly belie this. The stylized people of a bygone era — its never exactly clear exactly what time zone they inhabit — are always frozen in the midst of something about to happen, or that has just happened, usually conveniently, and possibly violently, just out of the picture. Little details that inhabit the background of a landscape or the shadows of a drawing room are frequently mysterious, but always compelling. The exhibition at the Norton provided magnifying glasses at appropriate intervals, and one would also come in handy while studying the reproductions in the catalogue, as one can spot frequently a small object like a card on the floor, or a face outside a window that demands closer inspection.

Gorey would start with the words first, and the images would come later. He would sometimes use reams of paper to get the words just right, and the catalogue showcases examples of his variations on text and accompanying doodles for many of his books, including The Osbick Bird, which he called alternately a "woshbosh" "jub jub" "scramble" and "fibbul" bird before deciding on "osbick." Gorey adored wordplay and anagrams and even published some of his books using anagrams of his name: Ogdred Wery, Mrs. Regera Dowdy, and Wardore Edgy, to name a few.

Apart from describing Gorey's love of cats and his omnivorous interest in books and popular culture, there isn't too much in the accompanying essay about Gorey the man, or his daily life. He loved ballet with a passion and lived in Massachusetts. His love of Buster Keaton and silent films informs his enigmatic black and white drawings and his intertitle-like text. He may or may not have intended his work to be enjoyed by children. Perhaps appropriately, Gorey the person comes off as ambiguous and cryptic as his drawings.

The man and (some of) his cats
"After it had passed, Lord Wherewithal was found crushed beneath a statue blown down from the parapet."
The Secrets: Volume One, The Other Statue, 1968.
For anyone who is unable to see the touring show, which started at the Brandywine Museum in Pennsylvania and has been making its way across the country, this book is a wonderful introduction to his work. But once one has been introduced to Mr. Earbrass or any of the unfortunate tykes featured in The Gashlycrumb Tinies it will become necessary to check out more of Edward Gorey's work. He did much more than just the clever animation that appears at the beginning of PBS's Mystery series. This book is a good place to start.
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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

i've always loved when harry met sally

Nora Ephron died yesterday  R.I.P. I've always enjoyed When Harry Met Sally, the screenplay she wrote for Rob Reiner's hit movie. There are many times that Reiner steers the movie into Woody Allen-lite territory, and it is Ephron's smart and funny dialogue about how men and women talk and think that keeps it from becoming too silly. Most people's favorite scene is when Sally shows Harry how women fake orgasms  over lunch at Katz's famous deli  (I used to live right round the corner). But I tend to like the scenes where Sally and Harry are walking through the city, or just arguing with each other. They seem very real, less sit-com-y, to me.

I also like that Sally is a woman who likes what she likes — and wants to control everything from salad dressing to the way she like's her pie ...

Ephron also wrote the screenplay for Mixed Nuts (which she also directed), which is a crazy movie, starring Steve Martin and many, many others, but definitely worth a look. And she wrote the fabulous Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep. In the '90s she started directing as well as writing. Her most successful movies would be Sleeples in Seattle and You've Got Mail, both starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I don't like either of them as much as When Harry Met Sally, but they have their moments. Her most recent film was Julie and Julia, where Meryl Streep turned in an amazing performance as Julia Child.

Ephron came from a screenplay-writing dynasty. Her parents, Henry Ephron and Phoebe Ephron, wrote the screenplay for Desk Set, another fabulous battle of the sexes movie, starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She was a true talent, and a woman who managed to have a voice in Hollywood. She will be missed.
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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

a wild ride down I-35

I-35, a recent release from Detox Press, is the debut novel from author Brett Selmont. Selmont's protagonist, David, follows the north-south American highway on a wild ride that starts out in search of his missing sibling, but quickly takes a detour into surrealistic territory.

A fast-paced read, I-35 at times feels more like a short story that may have gone on too long, or a novel that should have been fleshed out much more to come up to its mythic intentions. Anti-hero David is also, unfortunately, the least interesting and sympathetic character in the novel. He runs across a variety of seedy and downright creepy characters on his travels. David was orphaned young, and is estranged from his only sibling, his brother Jim. He wakes up one morning in the back of his car, in freezing Minneapolis, near to where his brother and sister-in-law live. There is a horrible, frightening, garbled message on his phone from Jim, but no other clues to their whereabouts. David embarks on a search for his brother, but quickly gets sidetracked by his own volent outbursts and a beautiful girl named Shawna.

There are echoes of old-school noir writing, and especially Neil Gaiman's American Gods, but unfortunately without the humor. Selmont feels compelled to meticulously describe just about every place David visits, every bar and gas station, no matter how decrepit or disgusting. He writes well, but all of the depictive prose may wear down even the most fervent fan of nihilistic fiction.

With a real zero for a hero, the main interest in the story lies in the complicated Shawna, the only character the author or David shows any real affection for. When she is not on the scene, I-35 suffers. In future, Selmont might want to try less to shock his readers with gross-out violence and unsympathetic heroes, and consider concentrating on more original and fanciful characters such as Shawna.
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Monday, June 25, 2012

a pixar princess

Much has been made of the fact that Merida, the heroine of the new Pixar film Brave, is a girl, the first female protagonist in Pixar's history of 17 years and 13 animated films. Well, they've come a long way baby — sorta. Merida is a feisty gal, and a great hero for kids, girls and boys alike, to root for. But she is also a princess. In American animated films it appears that the only females worth doing stories about are princesses. The great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's latest film, The Secret World of Arrietty also featured a feisty girl who can take charge and go on adventures. She was not only not a princess, but she was barely five inches tall.

This is not to say that Brave doesn't have its charms. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) may be a princess, but she isn't into doing all the usual princessy-stuff like learning to speak sweetly and politely, sew and play the harp, etc., etc. She loves to ride her horse Angus and especially to shoot her bow and arrows. But she is no Katniss Everdeen — she doesn't bring game home to her father the king's table, but rather seems to like to shoot her bow for accuracy, hoping for a Highlands archery competition. She gets her chance when her mother (Emma Thompson), fond of saying things like "A lady does not place her weapon on the table," tries to marry her off to the son of one of three local clans, and in the competition for her hand Merida competes herself, and of course wins. All of this is good stuff, and a nice twist on the traditional boy must impress girl, prince must win princess stuff. Brave is a girl power movie, with most of the males (save Angus) extremely unimpressive. Billy Connolly manages to make an impact as the King, but through humor, not prowess.

The real star of Brave is Merida's unruly, yet gorgeous mane of hair, which rivals Rapunzel's in its impressiveness. The film is simply wonderful to look at, especially the background and treatments of surfaces, like the hair on a horse or the weave of a tartan's plaid. The facial features of the characters are a little more doll-like, and they still have that "Pixar style" that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Toy Story, The Incredibles, Ratatouille or Up. It will be a real stride forward when the Pixar animation team feel they can inject as much individuality to their human characters as they lavish on hair, fabric and grass.

As a fan of fairy tales I love the many classic stories that have featured princesses, and see nothing wrong if my daughter (or any of her male friends) also familiarize themselves with them as they grow up. But fairy tales were mostly jotted down in a pre-democracy world. The goal of most storybook princesses is to find a prince. Many modern girls and women still equate such an aim with the only truly possible happily ever after. The marketing power and influence of Disney and its princess line is undeniable, but as we construct new stories, do we really need to continue to create new princesses? Merida's refreshing tomboyishness aside, Brave's female characters are mythic stereotypes — maiden (Merida), mother (the Queen) and crone (a witch, voiced by Julie Walters). The only other noticeable female in the movie is a (quite) buxom and rotund servant in the castle, whose main reason to be around is so that her cleavage can be used to comic effect.

The tagline of the movie, spoken by Merida, is "If you had a chance to change your fate, would you?" But does Brave take us beyond those three archetypal women, and does Merida really change her fate? Even after some magical (and quite amusing) transformation involving bears, not really. Merida and her mother, both stubborn types, agree to give each other a little more slack, and Merida can push off her wedding, at least for now. Brave ends up not being about Merida's independence at all, but more a story about a teen and her mom learning to appreciate and understand each other better. That's not a bad thing, but it's hardly the female empowerment story that many might have been expecting and hoping for.
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Sunday, June 24, 2012

above suspicion

Article first published as DVD Review: Above Suspicion, Set 1 on Blogcritics.

Told from the point of view of young detective constable Anna Travis (Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Holmes), Above Suspicion, Set 1 is a gripping detective series, from Lynda La Plante, the creator of Prime Suspect, and based on her popular novels. Starring Reilly and Ciarán Hinds (Rome, There Will Be Blood) as her tough and ambitious boss, Detective Chief Inspector James Langton, Set 1 includes the first two stories in the ongoing British crime series, "Above Suspicion" and "The Red Dahlia."

The two discs have a running time of approx. 254 min., with SDH subtitles available. Bonus material includes scene selection, behind-the-scenes segments for both mysteries, cast biographies, and photo galleries.

Travis, daughter of a deceased cop, is assigned to Langton's squad, but she at first doesn't fit in at all. She passes out during an autopsy, and keeps wearing the same suit to work (causing her female co-workers to snigger behind her back). To keep her out of his way, Langton sends her on what he thinks are wild goose chases, to interview distant witnesses in his current murder case, but she keeps coming back with useful information. She is intuitive, able to imagine and picture the victims and their murders, and has good interview skills.

Travis goes undercover with suspect Daniels
The first mystery, in two parts, "Above Suspicion," originally aired in 2009. Langton and his squad are investigating a series of brutal murders of women that have taken place over a twelve-year period. Langton thinks he may have a serial killer, and the investigation soon centers on the death of one of the victims, a prostitute and her son, Alan Daniels (Jason Durr), who grew up to become a successful and popular actor. To complicate matters, the charming Daniels shows interest in Travis, inviting her on a date to join him at the ballet. Langton may have a gruff manner, but he sees his new charge's potential, and lets her go undercover to learn more about Daniels.
"His ego is such that he will believe he is is above suspicion and he may let something slip."
The second mystery, "The Red Dahlia," is in three parts and originally aired in 2010. The body of a young woman is found; murdered, mutilated, and drained of blood; in the same manner as the infamous unsolved 1947 Los Angeles Black Dahlia murder case. American viewers may recognize Holliday Grainger (Lucrezia on The Borgias) who plays Sharon Bilkin, the first victim's flat mate, and Hannah Murray, as Emily Wickenham (Gilly on Game of Thrones.)

Travis is able to make it through a post-mortem examination without fainting or becoming upset — until the second victim. The bodies begin to pile up, and Travis and Langton are desperate to try and find the copycat killer. A suspect begins to emerge, another person who by his place in society may consider himself "above suspicion."

Langton and Travis work late on a case
Langton becomes concerned with Travis's growing friendship with reporter Richard Reynolds (Edward MacLiam). His concerns that her getting closer to the journalist may lead to potential information leaks are valid — but he is also taking a growing interest in her personal life.

The acting and drama are first-rate, but audiences should be warned that the crimes depicted are gruesome, and there are some scenes that include graphic violence, extremely realistically rendered dead bodies, as well as mature themes and language. Travis and Langton and their investigative team are all wonderful characters. Fans of good crime drama should enjoy Above Suspicion and eagerly await the U.S. release of subsequent series.
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Saturday, June 23, 2012

some favorite recent pix

Scary yawner Harry
Sleeping Totoro
Alert dachshund Angel

Friday, June 22, 2012

classic film favorite: the clock

Alice Maybery (Judy Garland), "Sometimes when a girl dates a soldier she isn't only thinking of herself. She knows he's alone and far away from home and no one to talk to and ... What are you staring at?" 
Corporal Joe Allen (Robert Walker), "You've got brown eyes."
The Clock is a little wartime romance, featuring Judy Garland in her first dramatic role as a young working woman in New York who meets a soldier played by Robert Walker in Penn Station. They have a whirlwind romance over the course of his two-day leave before he ships out for points unknown. Garland and Walker have great chemistry, and the film hurtles along as the couple visit the Central Park Zoo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, go on a date that lasts through the night and which takes them on an adventure with a friendly milkman (James Gleason) and other quirky New Yorkers.

A meet-cute at Penn Station
The camera (and the director) loves Judy
Riding home on the milk truck after an all-night delivery
Director Vincente Minnelli (Garland's husband-to-be) films his leading lady as both beautiful and alien — the soldier has never met anyone like her. He is enchanted by her innocence, but also her self-reliance and seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the city she loves. Robert Walker is diffident and adorable. His soldier falls hard and pursues the object of his desire relentlessly, but somehow the wartime setting keeps it all innocent and sweet.

The Clock, like so many films that came out of Hollywood in the 1940s, presents an idealized view of America and Americans. Could anyone have ever been so pure, so innocent, so polite, so nice? We would like to think they could. It is part of a nostalgic myth of America and its past that we hope is true. Was New York City really like it's depicted in The Clock during wartime, with people willing to go to any length to help a soldier and his girl? The story convincingly captures how people must have felt at such an uncertain time — that falling in love might truly be "now or never."

Minnelli makes New York City such a huge part of the story and fabric of the couple's romance that it is hard to believe that The Clock was filmed entirely on the MGM studio lot, complete with a huge replica of Penn Station. Minnelli's New York is complete with its pushing crowds on the subway and on the street, and full of "typical" New Yorkers that the couple befriends, like Keenan Wynn, who has a brief and funny cameo as a drunk in a sandwich shop.

One wonders when Walker's soldier comes back from the war — and he must come back, Judy's character says so — if he will be able to whisk his bride away from her job and the city that she loves so much to wherever he's originally from in the Midwest. Seems doubtful. New York is the city where they first met and a huge feature of their romance. But Walker's return and their wrangling over where to live would have been another movie, and one that would never have been made, anyway. The Clock is innocent and delightful just as it is.
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Thursday, June 21, 2012

madagascar — third time's the charm

I was not expecting much from Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, except a chance to take the kid to a movie she might enjoy - and to soften the blow that I couldn't take her to see Rock of Ages — she LOVES Tom Cruise, but while I could justify letting her see him scale a building and evade death in the latest cartoony Mission Impossible fantasy adventure, simulating pool table sex is something she'll just have to wait to see when she gets older.

But back to Madagascar. It was really good. In fact the first two adjectives that spring to mind are funny and delightful. I thought the first one was O.K., and I have no memory at all of the second one, but for this one the filmmakers have created some new and funny characters and the whole production is energetic, bright, and colorful. The four main characters are back: Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith). Directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, and Conrad Vernon have wisely increased the roles of the quirky penguins, who have had success with their own animated television series, and reduced the role of King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), who is funny, but only in small doses.

The gang runs away and joins a circus
DuBois means business
The penguins are horrified by Monte Carlo's feather pillows
But the really welcome additions to the third film are Frances McDormand as the evil and bloodthirsty Captain Chantel DuBois and Martin Short as (not-very-well) trained seal Stefano, one of the members of a European circus troupe that the quartet is forced to join in order to hide from DuBois and to hopefully use to get back to their beloved New York City Central Park Zoo.

There is lots of subtle humor, mostly for adults, such as an ocean liner named the "Mal de Mer." It's full of slapstick and some exciting chases that bring to mind Wile. E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. The character animation is still a bit "computery"-looking, especially for the four main characters (maybe for consistency's sake with the other entries in the series). The other characters, especially DuBois, seem more detailed, and the backgrounds evoke Monaco, Africa, Italy, and all the other places the animals pass through. It's not ground-breaking animation, but it's entertaining and fun and a great afternoon at the movies. I may have even liked it a bit more than the kid.
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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

edward gorey at the norton

“My mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible. I think we should all be as uneasy as possible, because that's what the world is like.”
Currently on view at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, FL, is Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey, running through Sept. 2. The retrospective show has been touring the country, and includes some 150 drawings by the talented artist. Gorey died in 2000, at the age of 75.

The Blue Aspic, 1968, pen and ink (Check out the ring on her toe!)
The Norton has set up the exhibit to encourage the viewer to take their time and really immerse themselves in Gorey's intricate, frequently morbid, but always amusing drawings. Multiple magnifying glasses are set up at intervals to allow viewers to discover details and get lost in the artist's cross-hatching. There is also a room that includes a wall of Gorey's books to enjoy. Only certain illustrations from some of his best-loved titles, like The Unstrung Harp, The Other Statue, and The Gashlycrumb Tinies appear in the show, so it is nice to be able to sit and flip through the entire book on an overstuffed, over-sized, Victorian pouf. There is also a room where one can pose in a Gorey-esque tableaux and a place for kids (and adults) to try their hand at drawing their own Gorey illustrations.

“The helpful thought for which you look
Is written somewhere in a book.”

Who's that at the window?
Draw your own Gorey, if you dare
Along with Gorey's original pen-and-ink illustrations, are preparatory sketches done in pencil, some watercolor designs he did for a production of The Mikado, and some cleverly illustrated envelopes/letters to his mother. Also included are illustrations he did for other writers' books, like Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, miniature (that is, really tiny) books, and a deck of cards which, when shuffled, tell a story.

Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey is a lot of fun. It's easy to get immersed in Gorey's world. I can't wait to go back and see it, magnifying glass in hand, again.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

gentlemen prefer blondes, but gentlemen marry brunettes

Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a sensation when it was first published, in serial form, in Harper's Bazaar in the early 1920s. Heroine and flapper Lorelei Lee narrates her own escapades and those of her best pal Dorothy Shaw. The two gals are besieged by suitors on both sides of the Atlantic. Although Lorelei is always out to get a nice piece of jewelry or some other gift from an admiring genteman, it's hard to label her a gold digger. She and Dorothy are not exactly husband hunting — they are more often the quarry.

Once Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was published in book form in 1925, it soon became a best-seller, and Loos was asked to write a sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which was published in 1928. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes also spawned a successful Broadway musical and two film versions, one made in 1928, which has been lost, and the classic Marilyn Monroe/Jane Russell female buddy movie from 1953. Loos was first inspired to create the character of Lorelei after watching writer H.L. Mencken, a friend and writer that she greatly admired let a girl, a blonde, that she considered a bubblehead wrap him completely around her finger. Mencken not only didn't mind being teased in print, but he helped her get it published.

I read an edition that included both novels, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady and But Gentlemen Marry BrunettesThe original Harper's illustrations, included in this double-edition by Ralph Barton really capture the era of flappers and speakeasies. Readers familiar with the technicolor film directed by Howard Hawks will be interested to see what survived from Loos's original characterization of Lorelei to Monroe's version.
"So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever."

Both books are written as entries from Lorelei's diary. Little Rock's most famous fictional debutante has decided to become a writer, and Lorelei never lacks for anything to say about herself and her endless quest for "education," or the merits and faults of those around her. Comic misspellings are peppered throughout both books: "Eyefull Tower," "safire," "Dr. Froyd," "negligay," etc. Lorelei always has her eye on the prize — and the next prize, and the next prize. She constantly complains about her best pal Dorothy's behavior, but Dorothy seems to do quite well for herself.
"I mean I always encouradge Dorothy to talk quite a lot when we are talking to unrefined people like Lady Francis Beekman, because Dorothy speaks their own languadge to unrefined people better than a refined girl like I."
"Safires" and "encouradgements" aside, Lorelei has no problem spelling words like "diamonds" or "champagne." Lorelei and Dorothy's antics are always amusing to read about. There is a bit of suspense involved in which suitor Lorelei will finally say "yes" to and mean it this time. No matter how much they might depend on a gentleman to take them to lunch at the Ritz, or take them shopping for bracelets and "negligays," Lorelei and Dorothy always seem in charge of their own destinies. And they seem to be having a great deal of fun, too. From the introduction by Regina Barreca:
"Loos's Lorelei and Dorothy didn't fall into vice; they jumped. The leap was a fortunate one. Lorelei manages her affairs, financial and sexual, with great success. She's a broker for her own goods. Her heroicism relies on her intelligence even more than on her blondeness, and on her willingness to understand the pleasures and penalties of the choices she makes."
As funny as Lorelei and her narrative are, Dorothy invariably gets the best lines, as she sizes up another "gentleman" while the girls are traveling in Paris:
"... so Dorothy spoke up and said, 'I hear that they number all of you Louies over here in Paris.' Because a girl is always hearing someone talk about Louie the sixteenth who seemed to be in the anteek furniture business. I mean I was surprised to hear Dorothy get so historical so she may really be getting educated in spite of everything. But Dorothy told Louie he need not try to figure out his number because she got it the minute she looked at him."

No matter how many fiancés or adventures they have, the girls' most important relationship is with each other, as Lorelei proves in But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, when she takes up writing again, but this time to tell Dorothy's story, which is quite a humdinger. Dorothy grew up in a carnival, and we follow her from the carny life to the stage, the Ziegfeld Follies, and beyond.

Lorelei may be a little distracted by her new married state, and even motherhood,
"And I always think that the sooner a girl becomes a Mother after the ceremony, the more likely it is to look like 'Daddy.'"
but she still is serious about writing. She even manages to get an invitation to join the Algonquin Circle. Of course Dorothy is not so impressed."Well, Dorothy finally finished her chicken hash and spoke up and said that she had overheard enough intellectual conversation for one day, so she was going out to hunt up a friend of hers who only talks about himself when he has a toothache."

Both books are humorous and quick reads. It would certainly help to be a little familiar with the 1920s, especially New York and Hollywood. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes aren't dated, but they are definitely a humorous time capsule. Lorelei and Dorothy don't let anyone hold them back. They are sassy and witty and completely unapologetic. They aren't exactly role models, but they are strong women who get what they want out of life. And that is always appealing to a girl like I.
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Monday, June 18, 2012

marilyn: goddess

I'm working on a long-form project on Monroe, so I'm reading everything I can get my hands on.

Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers is a comprehensive look at the actress's life, from her erratic childhood to her pursuit of a Hollywood career. Marilyn was atypical from many starlets, as her primary goal wasn't fortune or fame. She wanted adulation and love, but what she seemed to want most was to be a success as an actress, and to transcend her humble and unhappy beginnings. In 1952 Harry Brand, the publicity director for Twentieth Century-Fox said of her, "We're grooming her — or maybe I should say she's grooming herself — to be the sexiest thing in pictures since Jean Harlow."

Marilyn as Jean Harlow, photographed by Richard Avedon in 1958 for LIFE magazine
Marilyn was blessed (and possibly cursed) with beauty, but she was more than just pretty, she was incredibly photogenic. The camera loved her. She was made for movies. But she also had a crippling stage fright. She would never have had much of a career on the stage, but film presented the ability to cut and paste her various successful takes. Her directors were often amazed at the performance that showed up on film, versus their experience with the nervous actress they struggled with on set.

As with most biographies of Marilyn, Summers catalogues her many love  affairs, possible multiple abortions, and almost constant use of prescription drugs. Originally written in 1985, Summers conducted interviews with many of Marilyn's intimates or staff who knew her, like housekeeper Eunice Murray and "friend" Peter Lawford. He relies a bit too much on the testimony of Robert Slatzer [who controversially claimed he was married to Marilyn for three days in 1952], who keeps turning up, but for no discernible reason, in Marilyn's life — according to him. If Slatzer was truly such a good friend of Monroe, then he was also an enabler, calling her to tell her when Robert Kennedy would be in town, and looking the other way when she was drinking and drugging too much. The major players in her life — Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and actors and friends like Marlon Brando (all dead now) declined to comment for Summers' book, which just adds fuel to the fire that there will always be questions about the end of her life that must remain unanswered.

Marilyn could be a mass of contradictions. But because of her beauty and the circles she moved in, she took on the status of a goddess. Her brief life was lived not only in front of the cameras, but at a time when many societal changes were happening in America — specifically, for women. Marilyn may have embodied the "Dumb Blonde" and the "Bombshell" on screen, but she was also one of the few women in her time in Hollywood who dared to form her own production company to have some control over her films and her image.

She was a high school drop-out, but she had an endless thirst for knowledge. She was avid about books, and tried to better herself intellectually and spiritually. She loved children, but was plagued with gynecological issues from an early age. "Maurice Zolotow, her early biographer, once penetrated her studio dressing room and noted no less than 14 boxes of pills. Almost all were painkillers prescribed for menstrual cramps." Her friend Amy Greene [wife of Marilyn Monroe Productions business partner and photographer Milton Greene] said, "She told me she'd always use drugs. She was a baby when she started taking pills, 17 or 18 years old."

Marilyn tried desperately in her teens and twenties to prevent pregnancy, as it would have been deleterious to her career. When she was finally ready, in her '30s, her body had sustained too much damage. Or maybe, with her various issues, she was infertile. It was not lost on her that America and the world's goddess of sex could not bring a baby successfully to term.  Greene: "Marilyn made the horrendous admission that she had had 12 abortions, some of them back-street butcheries dating back to her earliest days in Hollywood. And then ... she was surprised that she had trouble having babies …" Greene took her to a gynecologist who diagnosed endometriosis and advised a hysterectomy, but Marilyn refused. "I can't do that. I want to have a child. I'm going to have a son."

Marilyn's status as a sex goddess was a boon and a curse, as she told Ben Hecht, in 1954, "Why I was a siren, I haven't the faintest idea. I didn't want to be kissed, and I didn't dream of being seduced … The truth was that with all my lipstick and mascara and precocious curves I was as unresponsive as a fossil. But I seemed to affect people quite otherwise."

The goddess, photograph by Douglas Kirkland
Her ability to make love to the camera made her a star, on film and in print. Her oft-told tales of abuse when she was just a young girl may have caused to to think of sex as something she could use, so that it wouldn't use her. As she explained to interviewer Jaik Rosenstein in 1960, "When I started modeling, it [sex] was like part of the job. All the girls did. They weren't shooting all the sexy pictures just to sell peanut butter in an ad, or get a layout in some picture magazine. They wanted to sample the merchandise. If you didn't go along, they were 25 girls who would. It wasn't any big dramatic tragedy. Nobody ever got cancer from sex. ... You know that when a producer calls an actress into his office to discuss a script that isn't all he has in mind. And a part in the picture, or any kind of a little stock contract is the most important thing in the world to a girl, more than eating. She can go hungry, and she might have to sleep in her car, but she doesn't mind that a bit — if she can only get the part. I know because I've done both, lots of times. And I slept with producers. I'd be a liar if I said I didn't …"

Marilyn never apologized for sex, or her use of it to get ahead. Unlike her iconic gold-digging character from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Lorelei Lee, she didn't use it to trap a rich husband, turning down powerful agent and lover Johnny Hyde, who left his long-term marriage to be with her. She could have been comfortably set up for the rest of her life, but she just wanted him to help her get better parts in films, not take care of her. And he did, securing her first prestige parts, in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, which helped put her on the map. Marilyn was ambitious as an actress:
"My illusions didn't have anything to do with being a fine actress. I knew how third-rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my God, how I wanted to learn! To change, to improve! I didn't want anything else. Not men, not money, not love, but the ability to act."
Marilyn is frequently portrayed as a woman who was used by Hollywood. She may have gone out with many older men to advance her career, but she always seemed to have a choice whether to date a powerful man like Elia Kazan or Joseph Schenck or Johnny Hyde. Many of her problems came as a result of her pill and alcohol dependence. But there are many who knew her who felt she was ill-served by her friends and mentors. John Strasberg, son of Lee and Paula: "The greatest tragedy was that people, even my father in a way, took advantage of her. They glommed on to her special sort of life. Her special characteristics, when what she needed was love. My parents did give her some love, but it was inextricably linked with the acting."

The most sinister characters in the last few years of her life, at least according to Summers' account, were Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, and the Kennedy brothers, who all come off terribly in Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. "The goings in at Lake Tahoe enraged [DiMaggio]. 'He was very upset,' says [DiMaggio pal] Harry Hall. 'She went up there, they gave her pills, they had sex parties, and Joe thought — because at that time he was a friend of Sinatra — it never should have happened ... he [Sinatra] should have left her alone.'" Sinatra, the Kennedys, etc. didn't see Marilyn as a person; just her sex goddess image. Why else would they want to be with such a drug-addled, vulnerable girl, except to say they "did" Marilyn Monroe?

Another account of a typical party at Sinatra's Cal-Neva Lodge, from Marilyn's friend Gloria Romanoff: "I think some of this gets a bit hazy because they were all drinking a good deal. ... Marilyn drank champagne, and some vodka, and would take sleeping pills. The Lawfords walked her about, after midnight, trying to keep her awake, and I think they called Frank in, too. I remember Marilyn telling me one of her problems was that she'd take pills for so long, they didn't work for her the way they did for other people. So she'd begin about nine in the evening, and build up that lethal combination of booze and pills."

Marilyn was caught in a vicious cycle of insomnia, pill-taking, parties, booze, and enablers. She could call friends and doctors at all hours, who would come running with barbiturates. She saw her psychiatrist Dr. Greenson and internist Dr. Engelberg almost every day during the last few months of her life. Both doctors kept prescribing sleeping pills. Although they tried to reduce her drug intake, no one ever seemed to really try to dry her out, or to address her chronic insomnia in some other way. Marilyn must have been beyond annoying to be around, as most addicts can be, yet no one seems to have wanted her to harm herself. Marilyn OD'd many times, and was brought back by friends and doctors many times. It is interesting that many of her previous overdoses coincided with miscarriages. Could she have lost another baby the week or month that she died?

Marilyn with a glass of champagne, her drink of choice
Marilyn's life is usually presented as an inexorable, inevitable, and pathetic progression towards her death. Death is waiting for us all, but we wouldn't be able to function if we didn't have hopes and dreams for our present and future. For all of her talk about death, Marilyn did, too. She always wished and hoped that the next guy would be the right guy. She had ambitions for her career, for her life. She was in talks to get back to the set to finish Something's Got to Give and to appear in some other interesting projects, but unfortunately they never had the chance to come to pass.

Summers gets a little too sidetracked in Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe with the Kennedys and their amorous and political complications. Poor Marilyn gets lost in the middle of the book in the Kennedy glare. The last few chapters present a Rashomon-like account of her final hours. It's well-researched, but full of so many conflicting statements by people who claimed to be "on the scene" that it is depressing and dizzying to read. Autopsy surgeon Thomas Noguchi "had the strong feeling that the case was being delayed, and that the scene of death had been disturbed." There was no CSI for Marilyn in 1962. "It seemed to me ... it's very likely the police department did close things down. I've encountered this often in my experience, and deaths involving important people…" Noguchi himself may have shown undue reverence in the autopsy, analyzing Marilyn's stomach contents and liver, but not her intestinal tract which may have shown traces of chloral hydrate and Nembutol. The absence of drugs in her stomach continues to fuel conspiracy theorists about drugs being administered to her in some other sinister fashion (e.g. via an enema).

All of Summers' meticulous documenting of links between Jimmy Hoffa, Sam Giancana, Sinatra, and the Kennedys aside, readers will most likely be convinced that Marilyn was not murdered — but her association with the Kennedys led to her death scene being fudged in attempts to cover up the relationship. Not that it did any good, as the open secret of Marilyn's affairs with both Kennedys has survived them all. Maybe singer/actor Sammy Davis, Jr. said it best, "The husbands, and some of the lovers, have found their lives altered forever by their association with Marilyn. 'She hangs like a bat [says Davis] in the heads of the men that knew her.'" Marilyn, her life, and her death, continue to fascinate.
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